overseas Filipinos

[Only IN Hollywood] A belated but historic Filipino American History Month celebration at the White House

Ruben V. Nepales

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[Only IN Hollywood] A belated but historic Filipino American History Month celebration at the White House
'Once inside, the Filipino Americans indulged in one of our favorite things to do – take and pose for photos, of course. After all, how often do we get invited to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue?'

WASHINGTON, DC, USA – The biting cold pierced my Filipino soul as Janet and I got out of the Uber car at 17th Street and State Place NW.

But I felt the wind chill factor immediately thaw when I saw a group of smiling Filipino faces at the visitor’s entrance, led by Brendan Flores, national chair of the National Federation of Filipino American Associations and Jannelle So Perkins, the host and executive producer of So Jannelle TV.

Braving the severe cold snap in our barongs and ternos, we were just exhilarated to attend the first live presentation of Filipino American History Month (FAHM) by President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris’ administration at the White House – truly a historic moment.

Jack Frost was nipping at my ears but someone joking about Filipino time – FAHM was last month but here we were in November – kept my Pinoy spirit warm. The truth was, events forced the postponement of the White House celebration until today, November 28.

Once inside, the Filipino Americans indulged in one of our favorite things to do – take and pose for photos, of course. After all, how often do we get invited to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue?

Earlier, Biden said in a message, “Our nation has been immeasurably enriched by the contributions of Filipinos and the Filipino American community. Since America’s founding, countless courageous Filipino immigrants have picked up their lives and found new homes here.”

“As educators, entertainers, entrepreneurs, health care workers, lawyers, service members, chefs, and so much more, Filipinos and Filipino Americans have helped forge the very idea of America.”

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GENEVIEVE. Genevieve Jopanda, former chief of staff to California state treasurer Fiona Ma. Ruben V. Nepales/Rappler

“And while they have helped build our country, they have never forgotten where they came from – weaving the vibrant heritage and rich culture of the Philippines into the tapestry of our nation.”

“Filipinos and Filipino Americans embody the best of our country – putting service over self, remaining committed to their opportunities, and bolstering the bonds that unite us as Americans.”

“By recognizing Filipino American history, we are better able to learn from our past, celebrate the progress we have made, and grapple with the distance we still have to travel on our path to living up to our country’s founding ideals.”

“May we continue honoring these proud Americans for all they have done to strengthen our great nation for many years to come.”

“To the Filipino and Filipino American community: Thank you for all you do to ensure our nation remains a land of hope, opportunity, and optimism.”

Biden, Harris, and First Lady Jill Biden were reportedly scheduled to attend FAHM but they had to attend the memorial service for former First Lady Rosalynn Carter in Plains, Georgia.

After all the taking of selfies and group pictures and greeting old and new faces (a veritable cross-section of Fil-Am community figures, limited in size due to space), we sat down in the ornate Indian Treaty Room, completed in 1880, so-called because, in the 1930s, the War Department reportedly stored documents there, including treaties with the Native American nations.

After a warm welcome by Philip Kim, the White House senior advisor-public engagement, Julie Su, acting secretary of labor, and ambassador Katherine Tai, US trade representative, delivered remarks. Ted Benito, the producer-director of this event, confirmed that it was the first time that a cabinet member (Julie Su) attended and spoke at a FAHM celebration in the White House.

Jules Aurora sang a stirring rendition of the US national anthem. Other speakers who inspired us and made us reflect included leaders Erika Moritsugu, Nani Coloretti, Steve Benjamin, Luisa Blue, JoAnn Fields, and Krystal Ka’ai.

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NANI. Nani Coloretti, Former United States Deputy Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. Ruben V. Nepales/Rappler

Jules also took turns with her fellow Fil-Am actors, Lou Diamond Phillips, Tia Carrere, Reggie Lee, and Jennifer Paz, in saluting Filipino American trailblazers and achievers in various fields – public service, military, sports, arts and entertainment, and food movement.

Lou said, “Today is about remembering our struggles and challenges, to learn from our history, and to look forward to the future.  Today is about acknowledging our achievements and victories on both the national and international stages.”

TRIBUTE. Actor Lou Diamond Phillips salutes Filipino Americans in the military. Ruben V. Nepales/Rappler

“Today is about our flourishing and thriving community of artists, public servants, and sports heroes and recognizing the importance we all play in elevating our culture. Welcome to you all!”

“We wouldn’t be here today, had it not been for the visionary leadership of two very special pioneers in the Filipino American community. On November 26, 1982, Fred and Dorothy Cordova founded the Filipino American National Historical Society or FANHS in Seattle, Washington.”

“Their goal was to promote understanding, appreciation, and enrichment through the identification, gathering, preservation, and dissemination of the history and culture of Filipino Americans in the US.”

“In 1991, the FANHS board of trustees proposed the first annual Filipino American History Month. October was chosen to commemorate the arrival of the first Filipinos who landed in what is now Morro Bay, California on October 18, 1587.”

Tia cited some of the Fil-Ams who held key positions in the White House, including Dr. Connie Mariano, who was a judge in the recent Miss Universe in El Salvador; she is the first military woman to become a White House physician, the first woman director of the White House medical unit, and the first Fil-Am to become a Navy Rear Admiral.

The actress, who stars as Mrs. Kekoa in next year’s Lilo & Stitch, the live-action version of the 2002 animated original (she voiced Nani) also pointed out Maria Mabilangan Haley, the highest-ranking and most influential Fil-Am official during the Bill Clinton administration, Eugene Benavides, and Irene Bueno.

Then there’s Cristeta Comerford, of course, the White House executive chef. The University of the Philippines alumna is the first woman, the first person of color, and the first Filipino and Asian to assume this position.

Not only that – Cris has served the previous four White House administrations and continues to be the executive chef of the most famous house under Biden’s term. We missed seeing you, Cris.

I first stepped into the hallowed halls of the White House in 2009 when I interviewed Cris. When she gave Janet and me a personal tour of the White House, we came across then First Lady Michelle Obama in a hallway.

Reggie announced, “Today, there are over four million Filipino Americans in the United States, the third largest population among Asian and Pacific Islander Americans, and mostly residing in states from California to New York, Washington to Florida.”

Jennifer stressed, “Our history is not unlike any other immigrant groups who have come to America in search of a better life.  It is one of struggle, discrimination, violence, and even sacrifice against economic, social, and most recently, medical challenges. It’s a history we can look upon with understanding and pride.”

In between breaks, somehow I managed to have short interviews in one of the stately rooms of the Secretary of War suite with other top Fil-Ams in public service – Gina Ortiz Jones, who served as undersecretary of Air Force from July 2021 to March 2023; Nani A. Coloretti, deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget; Irene Bueno, a National Advisory Council member of the Asian Pacific American Institute for Congressional Studies; Gabriel Uy, deputy director of public engagement for the Vice President; and Genevieve Jopanda, former chief of staff to California state treasurer Fiona Ma.

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GINA. Gina Ortiz Jones, Former United States Undersecretary of the Air Force. Ruben V. Nepales/Rappler

Towards the end, Reggie brought up another challenge facing Fil-Ams and Asians in our immigrant journey: “In recent years, especially during the pandemic, we’ve seen how racism has played a greater role to the detriment of immigrant families and people of color.”

“Anti-Asian hate crimes became the norm as people, especially those in power, blamed the coronavirus origin on China, calling it ‘the China flu’ or ‘Kung Flu.’ And Filipino Americans were victims of anti-Asian acts throughout the country.”

Jennifer struck a hopeful note: “Time and again, Filipino Americans have faced obstacles to advancement in America and time and again, we have shown that we can overcome them. Today is a celebration of that resiliency with the promise of hope for a brighter and compassionate tomorrow.”

Ted, who masterfully and with passion and painstaking attention to detail organized the event with Vida Benavides, Irene Bueno, and JoAnn Fields, looked forward: “As we’ve heard today, Filipino American history is one of struggle and achievement. And I began to think, what is our generation going to leave the future generations of Filipino Americans to commemorate our history?”

“What will Filipino Americans 20, 50, even 100 years down the line remember that our generation accomplished? How will we leave our legacy? So, we have a few suggestions that we would like to share with you.”

Irene shared her and Ted’s wish list: “We would like to have our Olympic heroes – Vicki Manalo Draves and Natalie Coughlin immortalized in US mint coins.”

“We would like to have our manong, the men who galvanized Filipino farm workers and together with Mexican workers, formed the United Farm Workers – all memorialized in first edition US stamps.”

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GABRIEL. Gabriel Uy, deputy director of public engagement for the Vice President. Ruben V. Nepales/Rappler

“We would like the opportunities to work with state and local leaders to obtain naming rights to roads, highways, and byways in honor of our community leaders, Royal Morales in Los Angeles and Bob Santos in Seattle, as well as others whose contributions to Filipino American history can be so recognized.”

“We would like to submit formal portraits of Larry Itliong and Philip Vera Cruz to the National Portrait Gallery. And most importantly, we would like to work with the Biden administration and other national entities to establish, for the very first time, a national monument dedicated to the sacrifices our Filipino American forefathers made.”

“In fact, we call upon the persons in this room to help form a national committee for the creation and institution of a Filipino American monument.”

Ted added, “Moreover, and this is a personal wish, I hope we can establish multiple national monuments, in cities and regions of the United States where our history in America began. These could be the FANHS plaque at Morro Bay, the historical marker currently located at St. Malo in Louisiana, the memorial dedicated to the Alaskeros (Filipinos in Alaska) in Juneau, and the Gintong Kasaysayan mural in Historic Filipinotown, Los Angeles created by artist Eliseo Art Silva.”

Chris Chatman ended the presentation on a high note with his version of This Is the Moment, one of Martin Nievera’s signature songs, composed by Frank Wildhorn and Leslie Bricusse for the musical, Jekyll & Hyde. Ted thoughtfully asked Chris to change “I” to “we” and “me” to “we.”

“It means something entirely different when the song is about a people,” Ted explained and indeed it was a rousing finale to a program celebrating Fil-Ams.

As the guests moved to the next room for a reception featuring Pinoy food, I posed this question to Reggie: “What does it mean for you personally as a Filipino American to be here in the White House celebrating Filipino-American History Month, especially as one of the pioneering Fil-Am actors in Hollywood?”

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HEROES. Actor Reggie Lee cites Filipino American heroes in sports history. Ruben V. Nepales/Rappler

“Oh boy,” the Grimm and All Rise star began. “This is a lot. It was very emotional for me to be here. I just remember coming to the United States and hearing about everything and the developments that we’ve gone through.”

“The people who are in office who are helping and forwarding our movement. For me to be here and to help present the history of the Philippines is an enormous honor. Probably one of the biggest honors I’ve ever had, aside from being able to act and do what I love to do.”

“This has been momentous not just for us as being in the entertainment field but also for us as a people and as a community. So, it’s the best honor I could ever ask for.”

On how it felt announcing some of the trailblazers or pioneers among the Filipinos in America, Reggie answered, “Incredibly emotional and surprising because I did not know about the history that we had here. Specifically with the sports figures and the history that we have going back to Morro Bay.”

“So, all those things put together has been an education but it also made me feel really proud to be here. And these are people who paved the way for us, and we’re here now trying to pave the way for the next generation, which is what this is all about.”

At the after-party at Abigail, Tia mused about the FAHM celebration that just ended: “We were really concerned this wasn’t going to come together because of all that we’re going through in the world. It’s a difficult time but I’m glad that a month later, we can celebrate being Filipino Americans.”

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TRAILBLAZERS. Actress Tia Carrere commends HER as one of the trailblazing Fil-Ams in Hollywood. Ruben V. Nepales/Rappler

“I think a lot of people in the room didn’t realize how many different Filipinos there are across politics, philanthropy, sports, history, military, as well as the arts, and were too numerous to even name. The list is long and illustrious, and Lou Diamond Phillips and I were honored to be hosting today. So, thanks to Ted Benito for inviting us.”

The actress also shared her thoughts on shining a light on some of the pioneering Fil-Ams: “For years Lou and I, Dean Devlin, and Rob Schneider were involved since Fritz Friedman invited us to do the lobbying on behalf of the Filipino American veterans. And over the years, I’ve become more and more involved in the community.”

“So, it was important that we shine our light and tell the story and make sure our story and our history is repeated and often because people will forget just how on the front lines we’ve been. Everybody knows Cesar Chavez; not everybody knows Larry Itliong, among many other Filipinos who have been deeply entrenched in California politics but go unnamed.”

Tia, who proudly brought her lovely mom, Audrey Kim, also answered my questions: “As one of the pioneering Filipino American actresses in Hollywood, what else do you think needs to be done? What should happen so we’ll be more visible in Hollywood?”

“It’s time that we stood up and took responsibility for our voice and making sure that it’s heard,” she replied. “We’ve held our heads down, worked hard, and just kept pushing forward but now, we have to hold our heads high and use our voices to proclaim that we are here.”

“That we are a part of the story and we’re an important and integral part of America. That we are a part of the story, we’re an important and integral part of American history and the backbone of America.”

At the after-after-party at Purple Patch, the wonderful bi-level restaurant of Fil-Am Patrice Cleary, this being an evening of Pinoys who came from various states, it was time for nonstop karaoke singing, of course.

Karaoke, Leisure Activities, Electrical Device
KARAOKE. Actress Jennifer Paz and singer Jules Aurora belt their hearts out at the after-party. Ruben V. Nepales/Rappler

When we stepped out, the chilly air did not make me shiver. My Pinoy heart was very warm from the stirring, exhilarating celebration of Filipino Americans from the past, present, and future. – Rappler.com

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Ruben V. Nepales

Based in Los Angeles, Ruben V. Nepales is an award-winning journalist whose honors include prizes from the National Arts & Entertainment Journalism Awards, a US-wide competition, and the Southern California Journalism Awards, presented by the Los Angeles Press Club.